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Demonized inventions: From railroads to AI

Paula Onusseit
May 19, 2023

New technologies are not always well-received, drawing skepticism, worries and fears. But why? A look at the history of technology provides some insight.

Picture shows an 1890 oil painting by H.Baluschek titled 'Railroad in Urban Landscape.'
An 1890 oil painting by H.Baluschek titled 'Railroad in Urban Landscape'Image: akg-images/picture alliance

Technological advancements are polarizing. It's not a new phenomenon for innovations to be sneered at, criticized or even demonized. "We find skepticism about technology even in the earliest written records that we have about technology theory," technology philosopher and historian Christian Vater told DW.

He said there were various reasons for this skepticism, including the complexity of technological inventions and the associated lack of knowledge or understanding, for example the fear of losing control or even emotionality. 

But skepticism toward new technologies is not proof of a general fear of technology, according to Helmuth Trischler, head of research at Deutsches Museum in Munich. "Behind this assumption is a limited perception — it's good that people examine things rationally," he said.

The difference between a rational assessment of possible consequences to technology and an irrational, uncontrolled defensiveness toward technology is also emphasized by Vater, who distinguishes between concern and panic. "I consider 'concern' to be very legitimate and extraordinarily necessary, especially if we want to actively, jointly shape a future shaped by technology in an informed democracy," he said. "'Panic', however, typically leads to uncontrolled running away."

The fact that technological inventions can inspire both concern and panic in equal measure can be seen in the example of the railroad.

Diabolical conveyance: The railroad

Some 200 years after its invention, the railroad is a completely ordinary form of transportation for people and goods around the world and a part of the fabric of modern society. But in its early days, some people perceived the railroad as the work of the devil.

A lithograph showing the opening of the Stockton & Darlington Railway in Britain in 1825: a steam locomotive pulls open carriages full of passengers, stretching back to the horizon as it passes over a bridge. A man on horseback rides just ahead, and a group of bystanders looks on. Some buildings are visible in the background.
In 1825, the Locomotion No 1 became the first public railroad in EnglandImage: United Archives/picture allaince

The world's first public railroad was inaugurated in England in 1825. After that, the steam locomotive made its fast, loud and smoky way across Europe — and with it, the fear of trains and of what was known in Germany as "Eisenbahnkrankheit" or "railway sickness." This was thought to be caused by the speed of up to 30 kilometers per hour (18.6 miles per hour) — considered fast back then — and the bone-rattling vibrations felt while sitting in the carriages. 

Even as the railway network grew throughout Victorian England, the criticism of this mode of transportation remained strong, as evidenced by satirical caricatures and illustrated police reports.

Trischler said these reactions are "completely understandable" within the context of their time. Technological advancements require reorientation, which can spark fears to which people react with dire prognoses and apprehension. "The new does, after all, arouse emotions. Technology is basically always associated with emotions," he explained.

Fear of the split atom

But not every technological invention inevitably evokes negative emotions. For instance, when nuclear energy was new, the attitude was different. The first German research reactor was built in Munich in 1957, and four years later, nuclear energy was fed into the country's power grid for the first time. In the 1960s, atomic energy was seen as an inexpensive and clean alternative to oil and coal and encouraged hopes for a renewed industrial upswing.

Picture of an anti-nuclear demonstration in Hanover, Germany in 1979. Several people march carrying banners with anti-nuclear slogans.
The German anti-nuclear movement gained momentum in the 1970s and '80s Image: Dieter Klar/picture alliance

The first critical voices grew loud in Germany in 1975, when the construction site of a planned nuclear plant was occupied by protesters. Critics in the southwestern German town of Wyhl warned of climate change, groundwater drawdown and possible security problems in connection with nuclear plants. The anti-nuclear movement gained momentum and incidents such as the accident at Three Mile Island in 1979 in the United States or the meltdown at Chernobyl in 1986 further spread fear and worry among parts of the population. Nuclear energy was a subject of debate in Germany for decades, until the accident at Fukushima in Japan in 2011 finally led to the German government deciding to phase it out for good.

While in some parts of the world, nuclear energy is still seen as a good alternative to fossil fuels, in other countries it evokes almost existential angst. "When we think about why people are concerned when it comes to nuclear energy, we can point to the question of nuclear waste, to Chernobyl or Fukushima. In other words, to man-made or nature-dependent situations with technological failures and unsolved technical problems," said Vater.

He and Trischler see a democratic success story in the debate over nuclear energy. Vater said that a society, "if it does not want to become technocratic, but wants to remain a participatory democracy," is dependent on goodwill, understanding and support from its members. Trischler added that "something can emerge from the debate about technology skepticism," and said that it's about a society's struggle for co-determination and joint negotiation.

Man vs. machine?

How fine the line can become between goodwill and skepticism, support and rejection, is illustrated by the current debate over AI. The American computer and cognitive scientist John McCarthy coined the phrase "artificial intelligence" in 1956 to describe a discipline of computer science whose goal was to create machines with human-like intellectual capabilities.

After decades of developments in the field, debate over the topic has focused of late on, among other things, the chatbot ChatGPT, which was released in November 2022 and immediately sparked controversy. In March, Italy responded by becoming the first country to block the software, at least temporarily. It's now allowed again, but only after proof of the user's age is presented.

Despite the many advantages AI promises — for example improved health care or increased road safety — there is also a great deal of criticism of the technology. The fears seem to run in two directions: Some worry about possible misuse, fakes or disinformation and about their professional future and intellectual property, while others are afraid of future technical developments that could gradually give AI more power and thus result in a loss of human control.

Artistic depiction of a humanoind robit holding a human brain.
Can AI blur the lines between man and machine?Image: Knut Niehus/CHROMORANGE/picture alliance

Trischler sees the fear of AI in general as rooted in the complexity of the technology. "Worries arise especially with regard to large technical systems that seem anonymous," he said. According to Vater, questions about, for instance, what impact AI might actually have on one's profession are rational concerns as opposed to a blanket fear of the machine. 

"To predict that the spread of AI will make all human creative effort superfluous, and that machines will take over the world in the near future, that would be panic," he said. 

Skepticism raises questions

So is a certain degree of skepticism toward new technologies a normal, understandable human reaction? Christian Vater and Helmuth Trischler think so.

"In hindsight, we often see that these fears have not materialized," said Trischler, adding that they are understandable when seen in the context of their time.

The ability to make predictions is useful "because it helps us to tune in to the next steps in development as a group, as a society, perhaps even as humanity," said Vater. "It's actually the normal situation that things then don't turn out as we expected."

This article was originally written in German.